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Strategic Orientations and Gathering Knowledge

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
April 22, 2021

Theory and research are complementary ways to acquire knowledge about human behavior. In public administration, theoretical frameworks show the relationships among concepts and help to define, describe and explain practitioners’ experiences navigating personal and professional interactions while planning for interventions. Theory-practice frameworks abound in the social and health sciences, serving to integrate technology into the delivery of information and services to various stakeholders. The modern discussion of the historical, legal and political contexts of the field traces back to an 1887 article by the future president Woodrow Wilson titled, “The Study of Administration.” As the discussion has evolved, the focus has remained on empirical knowledge subjected to scientific rigor. There is more to it, of course, for, in our work as public administrators, we solve problems by making common-sense judgments based on a combination of knowledge acquired through training and experience, personal values and principles, intuition and insights, and our belief systems.

Systems theory, which emphasizes inputs, outputs outcomes, and communication, can help to develop effective measures for resource acquisition and goal attainment based on sound scientific principles. By thinking systematically, modern public administrators can conceptualize their multifaceted responsibilities and concerns relating to the public’s well-being and safety. Göktuğ Morçöl made this point forcefully in a 2005 article titled, “A New Systems Thinking: Implications of the Sciences of Complexity for Public Policy and Administration,” in which he articulated the concept of, “Complex government networks” (CGNs). CGN is another way to think about the multiple and overlapping issues with which public administrators must deal. One aspect of this complexity that is especially salient today is collaboration between government and businesses on infrastructure projects and environmental and social programs. For example, Nathan Bomey reported such a collaboration in a recent USA Today article from March 9, 2021, titled, “CDC, Dollar General exploring partnership to speed up COVID-19 vaccine rollout.”

The occasional incompatible values of public and private organizations offer opportunities to deepen our understanding of managerial development—including the development of grace. I view partnerships (e.g., 3Ps, cross-sectoral collaborations) as a promising alternative to government-operated programs provided that sufficient resources and guidelines exist and risk factors are acknowledged in contractual agreements. Practitioners can gain knowledge about how to operate in these contexts through research and experience. Thus, I was fortunate to gain valuable early experience in the design of joint ventures in connection with Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program Act projects. Indeed, the empirical research (reports, case studies and expert testimony) provided by the National Correctional Industries Association regarding the use of these projects indicates their capacity to reduce recidivism and move us beyond just warehousing prisoners.

Serving the public good and meeting societal expectations for offender rehabilitation must remain the goals for correctional institutions, just as the pursuit of profit motivates private businesses. These differing aims can present challenges for the administrators whose responsibilities include balancing the public good and legitimate drive to maximize profit. Often, the path to improving one’s performance as an administrator leads to graduate school, as many mid-career and pre-service professionals seeking to develop such management and leadership skills as research, data analysis and the written and oral presentation of information and policy attend programs in public administration.

New circumstances naturally reveal challenges, as shown in past years. Therefore, public administrators and managers of all sorts are making decisions about funding and implementing programs to respond to the COVID-19 crisis (e.g., ensuring equality vaccinations). This effort has drawn attention to the need to identify strategies for effective partnerships, connect these partnerships to the mission and goals of departments, agencies and firms, and devise feasible communication plans for interacting with the media, stakeholders regulators, and so on. Under such circumstances, managerial development—the acquisition of new skills through formal education, certificate programs, and continuing education initiatives—can build capacity in public agencies and through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

At the same time, through grace, managers and administrators can demonstrate their humanity as public officials and private social entrepreneurs. The unpredictable and rapid world-changing events require the efforts and values of both public- and private-sector workers and agencies as envisioned in the PPP models. Networked groups and influential outsiders can, as both progressive and conservative media outlets have done, contribute by pressuring officials to draft new action plans. People naturally rely on their beliefs to help make sense of changes and overcome feelings of uncertainty, but public administrators and managers must be intentional in gathering knowledge, respecting scientific authority and embracing experiential learning. They must also avoid reliance on intuition and customary practice alone. It is the responsibility of public administration programs—from colleges to the workshops offered by the American Society for Public Administration—and mentors to emphasize the importance of empathy and grace for new administrators and new administrations.

Author: Dr. Garth-James, Associate Professor & Director, MPA Program and Center for Public Affairs Azusa Pacific University, [email protected]

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